The hardest part is making this a challenge

Last year I was somehow able to produce a significant amount of writing each week. Having seemingly nothing for yet another week in my new hometown, I took a look back at what I was writing this time last year. It seems I was much better at getting myself into shenanigans last year. I really have to try to make things exciting anymore. This time last year was I making a whirlwind trip to Japan, trying to find things to write about for a more professional blog, and continually getting myself lost in urban jungle of Seoul. Now, my biggest adventure is a 15km ride to township of less than a thousand people in the center of this quiet little island I’ve found myself on.

This doesn’t mean I’m enjoying myself any less. I can’t remember the last time I was this comfortable in a place. My house almost feels like a real home, the city actually gets quiet at night, I watch the incredible colors of the sunset from my balcony every night, I’m making friends with some great people, and I have ample time to study the things that interest me.

However, it’s much more tame. The challenge is to make it a challenge. Forcing myself to speak Swedish when I have the chance, exploring the city and the island in my free time, and taking up new hobbies like rock climbing are all that add excitement to this new life. Even keeping this blog up to date is a challenge in itself.

So, I don’t have much to share this week (again), but I do have a few photos. Enjoy!

 

vindturbin

On my way to Roma, I caught sight of a lone wind turbine. Gotland has plenty of wind, and the people take advantage.

Roma tree tunnel

The area around Roma is criss-crossed with quaint roadways that look like paths to another world.

monastery arches

The ruins of this abbey still stand after over 800 years. The Cistenciencer monastery housed monks between 1164 and some time in the sixteenth century. Only one of the buildings remains, but the foundations of the rest of the complex can still be seen. Today, the monastery is used for plays and other cultural activities.

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Morning is still my favorite time of day. The fresh air of this quiet little island is especially crisp at dawn.

American Freedom

The ridge was perhaps a kilometer away; its gently inclined, snow-spotted eastern slope shined brightly in the morning sun. To climb it would hardly be a hike, but I needed to get there to get the shot I wanted. I was stuck though. The long, icy dirt road I had ridden up to this point suddenly came to an end. Roads continued to my left and right, but bright red letters spelling out PRIVATE PROPERTY checked my advance. Even if I had ignored the warning, the sides of the road in either direction were lined with barbed wire to the tops of the next hills, and I could only assume it went on like that. Catching my breath and letting the crisp, dry air cool my damp skin, I looked back and forth, considering my options. The white sedan parked to my left in the turn-around area brashly defied the sign above it: NO PARKING ANY TIME. Over the past two months, I had more than once blazed past signs in foreign languages that I can only assume carried the same weight as these that blocked my path today. However, here in the land of “Make My Day,” I shied away.

Pedaling along the wide county road that led toward an area I was certain would be publicly accessible, I eyed the ceaseless line of split-rail fence between the road and the acres of open prairie beyond.

Whose land is this?  I kept thinking to myself. And why are they so insistent that it not be trespassed on?

Finally, I made my way to the main road that leads up to the dam of the city’s main reservoir. When it turned too steeply up the slope, I stepped off and walked my heavy mountain bike. As I reached the top of the grade, I started to look for places to climb up into the hills and reach the ridge I had been eyeing. Yet, despite leaving the residential area behind, lines of barbed wire that I had never noticed continued to line road.

Certainly, this isn’t private property. But if it’s government land, why can’t I walk on it? The government ought to be a thing of people (rez publica = republic), so if this is land belongs to Colorado residents, this is my land.

Perhaps I was just frustrated because I had been biking for over an hour on what was meant to be a rest day, but I struggled with the logic of it. Colorado boasts some of the most beautiful vistas in the world, but here on the outskirts of a medium-sized city, this natural area was being kept just beyond arm’s reach. However, in typical government efficiency, the barbed wire ended, and the backside of the slope was completely open.

By the time I had summited the ridge, I had an even more pertinent thought: If the area warrants protection because presumably it would suffer from the free trespass of hikers, but the protection is so weak that anyone with half a mind to climb up here could do so, why am I the only one?

Most of the slope was still buried under several inches of Christmas snow, but the only tracks I crossed (and usually followed) had been left by deer, rabbits, and coyotes. The human traffic in these hills had exclusively kept to the asphalt below. As I looked out over the reservoir, I could spot dozens of cars, many with bikes strapped to their roofs, winding their way along the paved ridges and valleys toward pre-blazed trails and designated areas. I had just blazed my own trail. The heavily rusted coffee can I passed halfway up told me that I wasn’t the first one here, but certainly not enough had come by to leave any trace of their climb.

Americans incessantly boast about the freedom, but I’m starting to doubt their commitment. In my ten months abroad, there were only a few moments when I felt any restriction upon my freedoms. I chose not to push my luck in Asia because I knew the language barrier might lead to a disastrous misunderstanding should I unwittingly break the law. However, in Europe, freedoms of speech, expression, and movement appeared to be as immutable as anywhere. Indeed, I can find cases of violating privacy, holding citizens without charges, and persecution of opinion by governments of any nation, but what limitations do we impose on ourselves?

Why do we insist on using only one mode of transportation (the automobile) to get around our cities? We are necessarily confined to the lines on the pavement, traffic regulations, and the extent of flat roadway. Why do we tend to drive our way to overused trailheads to hike the clearly marked trails when we want to see nature? We voluntarily limit ourselves to seeing what has already been seen and going where other have already gone.

Now in the news we hear of students on college campuses protesting the oration of disagreeable ideas, we see schools pushing stricter testing guidelines, and we hear of cries for restrictions on religious practice. In our own lives, we feel the pressures of social conformity to meet the predetermined concepts of success. In ourselves, we face our own limits and shy away in self-doubt.

Americans may be “free” in the general sense of speaking out against their government, meeting in public spaces, or reading whichever flavor of news they prefer, but what about the freedom to learn or the freedom to explore? I didn’t see any park rangers on my hike today who would have stopped me from climbing that hill. There was no government official touting new policies requiring citizens to go hike the same trails. However, when I look at this society, I see people trapped in their routines. They eat at the same restaurants, drink at the same bars, shop at the same stores, drive the same roads, and hike the same trails. If we’re going to tout our pride in our freedom, why don’t we use it?

I’ve lived in this town for nearly 19 aggregate years now, but I’ve never noticed the barbed wire or seen the view from that hill. I’ve never seen the way the tracks of the wildlife criss cross in the snow, leaving trails that let us know they still live here, but rarely let themselves be seen. I’ve never noticed the way parts of the reservoir freeze or the way two almost parallel faces of a slope can differ greatly in how quickly the snow melts off of them.

Americans, I fear for the freedoms you lose when anti-terrorism laws tear open Constitutional rights or when police brutalize peaceful protestors or when your state legislatures insist that you hold irrational beliefs to run for office. But I fear most for the freedoms you’ve given away. People have only colonized a fraction of this enormous continent, and the federal government currently protects 190 million acres of national forest. There is much left for all of us to explore.

And when we explore, let’s find a new way. Are we going to be slaves to our cars? What about electric aircraft? Airbus wants to put one out for commercial use next year. Why not take the persistently reliable bicycle? My aunt rode her bike across the country last summer. Or what about your good old two feet? After walking more miles than I could count the past nine weeks, I am thoroughly convinced that this world is most beautiful seen at the speed of an ambulating hominid.

Footprints

Take only pictures; leave only footprints.

Awesome

Stunning. Breathtaking. Staggering. Majestic. Awesome.

Since I learned those words, I did not truly understand what they meant. Now, I do.

A thousand feet above the small town of Klaksvik, the second largest town of the Faroe Islands, I carefully shuffled down onto a precipice of frozen grass and rock. On all sides rose the steep, snow-capped faces of the fjord walls. The channel of water, the lifeblood of this island nation, bringer of food and spirit, cut through the walls to the southeast. Along this corridor of the gods streaked the first rays of the creeping sun, igniting the tips of the clouds above the distant sea before ending their cosmic journey across vast space in a radiant ricochet against the jagged peaks. The luminous scatter bathed the morning in a salmon glow, warming the frigid winter air and revealing the melodic and unhurried motions of the town below. My eyes stretched left to right futilely gasping to drink in the whole of the epic scene. They reached, like an infant toward his mother’s face, to the distant slopes, as the shadow receded one microscopic boulder at a time down toward the still waters of the fjord. So focused, so enraptured, so irreverent was I that I entirely forgot to breathe. My body became nothing; my mind became all. Resting there, high above, like a god gazing over his creation, I reveled in the glory of this morning. But I am not a god. I am but a man, small and insignificant, powerless and pitiless, impotent to comprehend to the magnificence of the universe. In my feebleness, I saw only my futility amidst the brilliance of mother nature, and all I could do was submit in praise of her majesty. My sight rippled with unclarity as tears came to my eyes; helpless was I against this awesome beauty.

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The Power of Silence

Through my clean, dry socks, the warmth of the heated linoleum floor penetrates the soles of my feet, wanton for this brief moment of respite. In a cozy room alone, I have taken the opportunity to spill some thoughts, unhampered by the anxieties of tomorrow’s responsibilities. More than anything though, the greatest relief is the silence. Though the window is open, the loudest sound in the room is the scratching of my pen against paper. Above the constant ring of my ears, the gentle whir of a water cooler slips under the thin wooden door. An occasional joyous outburst from the room upstairs reminds me I am not completely alone up here, but this has been my first time away from the energy and activity of the city in over six weeks. I had forgotten what it was like to stand near an open window and hear nothing but the gentle scratching of dry branches at the beckon of a gentle breeze or the distant whistle of a lonely animal calling expectantly for a companion. I had forgotten the scent that a cool night air carries over an artificial settlement such as this one, placed so brashly in the bosom of these wooded hills. In this quiet, clean calmness, I can listen to my busy mind, desperate for an open ear.

I penned these words in a small journal as I was sitting in my dorm room at the Yongpyeong English Village, a small collection of a brick buildings, stereotypically fashioned after the architecture common along the American East Coast. In the mountains to the east of Seoul, this little village serves as the site for intensive English language courses, a meeting place for faculty and staff, and even a popular television drama. Surrounded only by mountains and rural farming towns, the English Village is particularly quiet at night. Especially on a night such as that one, when the skies were clear and the wind was calm, there was almost no sound coming from outside the buildings. On an impulse, after I spent some time thinking and writing in my room, I decided to go for a walk. With only my notepad and a pen, I wandered up into the woods above the village. There were scattered camping areas and a small obstacle course, which I of course had to play on. After startling a dog whose bark was probably much bigger than his bite, I decided it was best to return to my room. I did little writing over the course of those two hours, but the walk through the natural stillness, listening to the gentle murmur of a small creek and tramping over the wet leaves shed last autumn, I was able to release much of the stress and pent up emotion that had been plaguing me over the past couple weeks.

The next day, I went out again to see the forest in the daylight. While most of the rest of my colleagues were in sabbath day activities, I ambled through the forest in a Thoreau-like contemplation to read of the adventures of Alexander Supertramp in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and admire the natural beauty that I no longer get to observe so often as I once did. While exploring, I snapped a few pictures. Let me know what you think.

Last time, I shared with you some of the flashbacks of my multiple lives in the United States that had been taking an emotional toll on me. Since Friday, when our retreat started, those have been much less frequent. Today, however, I had a little time back in the city as I was walking to a footy match (which I had failed to notice had been cancelled), and I got to thinking about a conversation I am currently having with Joel about prestigious universities. I have realized that few of the things I have done over the past decade have been for any deeper reason than “because I can.” I have fully embodied the “Type A” personality: simply for the fact that the mountain exists, I must climb it.

College math courses are available to me in high school, you say? I shall pass them.

The Naval Academy only accepts 1,500 students a year, you say? I shall get accepted.

Aerospace engineering is the toughest major, you say? I shall master it.

I did these things primarily out of the need to prove that I could do them. Fortunately, I did not accept such challenges as becoming a Navy SEAL, becoming a fighter pilot, or even dropping literally everything to start from scratch as a hobo somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. After all of this, I began thinking about how much of this current journey is led by the same motivation. Although some of that certainly still hangs with me, I do not believe this journey is any longer at the will of the latest challenge to be accepted. I recently narrowed down my objectives while I am here in Korea. These are all pragmatic goals that stem from a quest for liberty and a sense of belonging.

1. Pay off my debts. Living with the thousands of dollars that still hang over my head because of decisions that were exactly right for a life I no longer lead restricts my dream of experiencing the world. The monthly payments I must maintain dictate the jobs that I may accept and thus the places I may find employment. When these debts are gone, I will only need to earn the money sufficient to maintain my livelihood, which may be a very small amount depending on my current place of residence.

2. Learn Korean. Though I have a desire to communicate with the Korean people out of respect, this is really the first step in a journey to become multilingual. As is the purpose of this blog, my aim is to learn and tell the stories of those whom I meet along my journey. Currently, I cannot tell the story of anyone who does not speak very good English. By learning Korean and the languages of the countries in which I will live, all of these lives will become available to me.

3. Write. The more I write and the more I think, the more I realize that I my future profession will be based in the written word. Whether it be in publishing research as a professional academician, telling the stories the public needs to hear as a journalist, or sharing my continued explorations as a travel writer, my future career will depend upon the skills I am honing here. Also, I know my family likes to hear what I’m doing. 🙂

4. Stay fit. Too often, I see people debilitated by their failing bodies. I pity them because I know that for many, it was the sum of disrespect for their bodies that has now crippled their lives and freedom of movement. I know that I have many years, probably decades, left of exploring the world. I want my body to be ready when I need it.

None of these goals calls for the conquering of towering mountains – although I would love to see Everest on my travels. These are the ways I am preparing for the life that is right for me, a life in which I may explore great swaths of this beautiful Earth, tell the stories of the people who are its stewards, and search for a home among the community that shares these beliefs about the world.

In the brief instant of our lives, we are meant to roam and explore beyond our boundaries.